From the deepest seafloor to the highest mountain, from the hottest region to the cold Antarctic plateau, environments labelled as extreme are numerous on Earth and they present a wide variety of features and characteristics.
Investigating life processes in extreme environments not only can provide hints on how life first appeared and survived on Earth (as early earth was an extreme environment) but it can also give indication for the search for life on other planets.
To examine these issues and other matters the European Science Foundation (ESF) has published a 58-page report Investigating Life in Extreme Environments – A European Perspective. Among other issues, the report has stated how global changes in the recent decades have turned some environments setting into becoming “extreme” conditions for the normal ecosystems (e.g. acidification of the oceans). Therefore the understanding of tolerance/adaptation/non-adaptation to extreme conditions and ecosystem functioning are able to help predicting the impact of global change on biodiversity.
This report is resulted from an ESF inter-committee initiative involving the Marine Board (MB-ESF), the European Polar Board (EPB), the European Space Science Committee (ESSC), the Life Earth and Environmental Sciences Standing Committee (LESC), the Standing Committee for Humanities (SCH) and the European Medical Research Councils (EMRC). This interdisciplinary initiative considered all types of life forms (from microbes to humans) evolving in a wide range of extreme environments (from deep sea to acidic rivers, polar regions or planetary bodies).
A series of recommendations were made from a large-scale interdisciplinary workshop (128 participants) organised in November 2005 with an additional workshop organised in March 2006. They have identified interdisciplinary (listed below) and disciplinary research priorities.
Cross-cutting Scientific Recommendations
• Identify and agree on i) model organisms in different phyla (a group that has genetic relationship) and for different extreme environments; and ii) model extreme environments
• Favour an ecosystem-based multidisciplinary approach when considering scientific activities in extreme environments.
• Foster the use of Molecular Structural Biology and Genomics when considering life processes in extreme environments
Cross-cutting Technology Recommendations
• Laboratory simulation techniques and facilities (e.g. microcosms) should be wider developed and made available to the scientific community.
• Develop of in-situ sampling, measurement and monitoring technologies. The assessment and use of existing techniques is also recommended.
• Adopt a common approach (specific to research activities in extreme environments) on technology requirements, availability and development.
Structuring and Networking the Science community
• Favorise interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity approaches between scientific domains and between the technological and scientific spheres.
• Create as soon as possible an overarching interdisciplinary group of experts to define the necessary actions to build a critical European mass in the field of “Investigating Life in Extreme Environments”
• Improve the information exchange, coordination and networking of the European community involved in scientific activities in extreme environments.
The report also includes recommendations specific to i) Microbial life, ii) Life Strategy of plants, iii) Life Strategy of animals and iv) Human adaptation.